*. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare can be strict or loose, and the looser they get the more I’m likely to question them. But Sally Wainwright’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told tetralogy) impressed me. It takes the old, very politically incorrect tale and manages to update it without ever feeling like it was forcing the material in some direction it didn’t want to go.
*. The story is told more from the female point of view, with Katherine Minola (Shirley Henderson) playing a termagant of a rising British politician who could become party leader if she’d only settle down and get married. Given how violent a temper she has, this seems unlikely. Meanwhile, her sister is a glamorous supermodel that men are tripping over, but she’s only interested in a brainless Italian toy-boy. Rounding the family out, their mom is played by Twiggy, who has a casual attitude toward men as well.
*. Enter Petruchio (Rufus Sewell), who has come to wive it wealthily in London. He has a title (which still means something in England) but has fallen on hard times and has no expectations, which is why he wants to dig some gold. And that makes some sense out of something I could never figure out about the play, which has it that Petruchio is already a wealthy man. In any event, here he makes a hard play for Kate, and after some rough wooing they’re a happy couple. She’s on her way to becoming PM and he’s going to raise the kids.
*. The attraction between Kate and Petruchio is complicated. We do get the sense that he likes her, while I guess she sees him as a nasty bit of Rufus. The script has to tread carefully here, as it would be too easy to make Kate into someone who’s repressed and just in need of a good shagging to set her straight. As it is, she isn’t tamed so much as invited to see how much better life would be if she just loosened up a bit. And all of that works.
*. To just expand a bit on setting Kate “straight”: there’s suspicion at one point that she might be lesbian, and this is expressed by one character as wondering if she “shops around the corner.” I’d never heard this term before and had to look it up. Apparently it’s British slang for homosexuality, but I don’t think it’s widely used or even known. At first I thought it meant that someone was shopping too close to home — that is, dating someone of their own gender. But one explanation I found said it refers to anal sex (that being “around the corner” from the main entry). So I guess it initially was used as a way of referring to gay sex and then was extended to cover lesbian relationships. But I’m not sure. A new one for me anyway.
*. As for the declaration of love at the end, that’s also well handled without being overly arch and ironic. It takes the form of a squabble over who’s going to sign prenups, with the point being that Kate and Petruchio trust each other enough to forego that necessity. Meanwhile, Kate’s mom and sister seem doomed to keep running on the mating treadmill.
*. In sum, it all struck me as a very weird Taming of the Shrew, more smart than funny but certainly interesting and better than I was expecting. As I say, it’s a fine line they have to walk with re-imagining the gender politics but they manage it surprisingly well. Sewell is a manly man, and having him spend half the film in drag keeps us off balance when he becomes a little too aggressive. Meanwhile, Kate is obviously someone who needs to be humanized more than feminized and that works too. I didn’t come away liking either character very much, but did feel that they deserved each other.